First Appeared at The Music Box, June 2000, Volume 7, #6
Written by Michael Karpinski
va-nil-la (vuh-nil´uh) n. 1. Any of various tropical American vines of the genus Vanilla in the orchid family. adj. 1. Relatively unoriginal, unexciting, or uninspiring; ordinary.
"I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!
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According to the International Ice Cream Association (yes, there really is such a thing), this planet’s hands-down favorite flavor is plain ol’ bland-to-the-bone vanilla. While this will no doubt come as something of a shock to Rocky Road and Butterscotch lovers from Toledo to Timbuktu, it should come as no surprise to those with even the most shallow grasp of pop music’s past. After all, that original King of Vanilla, Pat Boone, was pilfering from Little Richard and piggy-backing Fats Domino as far back as the ’50s. Further, while Ice-T and Ice Cube may well be today’s elder statesmen of Afrocentric street-cred cool, but it was that hellaciously unhip honkey Vanilla Ice who rode Queen and David Bowie’s coattails to multi-platinum status with the ’90s most atrocious opus, Ice Ice Baby. For solace in the face of such brazen appropriations, one must turn to the Bowie of his day, Oscar Wilde, who once so timelessly opined: "To be popular, one must be a mediocrity." Word up, O.
One can only imagine what that infamous lover-of-lads Wilde would have made of today’s ever-expanding stable of boy bands, most of whom appear to have been named after gay Internet porn sites, and all of whom sound about as slick and sterile as a surgeon’s scalpel: Backstreet Boys... Boyzone... ‘N Sync... C-Note... 98°... 5ive... and now — as if that weren’t already glut enough — the newest kids on the schlock-pop block... Youngstown. Rather ironically christened after their rust-industrial Ohio hometown, these squeaky-clean, Lord-and-Savior-praising caucasians — Sammy, Dallas, and DC — take great pains to assure their Teen and Tiger Beat-subscribing clientele that they are not just some prefabricated piece of stud-muffin fluff. Too bad you’d never know it from listening to Let’s Roll, their utterly lackluster debut.
Certainly, to single out any of Let’s Roll’s 14 songs for either credit or censure would be akin to dedicating a Ph.D. thesis to the question of who was the perkier Mousketeer — Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears. Suffice it to say, with songs creatively encrypted I’ll Be Your Everything, Whenever You Need Me, and Forever in Love, you don’t even have to take these three-and-a-half minute slabs of taffy out of their wrappers to know what they’re going to taste like. Youngstown’s riffs and arrangements are so consistently milquetoast mundane that they make the Backstreet Boys’ mix of by-the-numbers faux-funk and bubblegum balladry seem almost ambitious by comparison; their relentlessly lame takes on soul-inflected R&B make Taylor Hanson’s adenoidal exhortations sound downright Curtis Mayfield-esque; and their Gap-clad, white-suburbanite raps pack all the kid-gloved punch of Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch. Let’s Roll is aural wallpaper at its most draining and inane. It is the soundtrack to a coma — the noise a loaf of Wonderbread makes as it slowly goes to mold. It is the music Hitler and Nixon must listen to every time they ride the elevators in Hell.
To be fair, Youngstown is hardly responsible for the current resurgence of carbon-copied corporate pop, just as a teen-dominated music market is hardly a fresh phenomenon. In the ’40s, Frank Sinatra had the bobbysoxers so hot and bothered that they were fainting at his feet. In the ’50s, Elvis Presley held the poodle-skirt-and-saddle-shoes crowd stupefied and spellbound; and, in the ’60s, The Beatles induced the Mania-crazed distaff masses into fits of shrieking, knee-knocking ecstasy. Yet, Sinatra was no common crooner; Elvis was always much more than just a Bryl cream-slick pompadour and a pair of swiveling hips; and the Beatles’ charming working-class accents and marvy moptops can only go so far toward explaining their ongoing appeal. By contrast, there seems little to suggest that today’s chart-topping heartthrobs will ever transcend the transitory tools of their trade — a closetful of South Beach-neon tank-tops and a lifetime supply of hydrogen peroxide. Mix in the requisite physical characteristics (i.e. sleek cheekbones, anemic goatees, phat abs, and decidedly maximized glutei), hire some hoary former flygirl (e.g. Paula Abdul) to introduce some elementary dance steps, and a passel of Swedish tunesmiths (Johan, Andreas, Esbjörn, et al.) to fashion and fit a cheap suit of chintzy synthesizers and bloated backbeats, and — Shazam! — you’ve built yourself a bona fide, buzzworthy, Backstreet-era boy band. Youngstown is just such a one — all glitter and tinsel and carny-barker fairy dust. Fortunately for us, like that moldy loaf of Wonderbread that so wryly represents them, their shelf-life should be a short one.
The polls may show that — when it comes to ice cream and teen beats, at least — vanilla is far-and-away the taste of the day. However, there seems to be no harm in hoping that sometime in the not-too-distant future, Little Richard-styled Tutti Frutti and Fats Domino-derived Blueberry Hill Ripple will rise up in righteous revolution and kick the International Ice Cream Association and this current cavalcade of soulless boy bands right out on their bland, candied asses. ½
Let's Roll is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2000 The Music Box